What is Bicarbonate of Soda?

12 Oct

Bicarbonate of Soda is a fine white powder, sometimes labeled as Sodium Bicarbonate or Baking Soda, and often verbally referred to as Bicarb or Bicarbonate. Always keep in mind that, it is not the same as Baking Powder. Tip: it must have the word ‘soda’ or ‘sodium’ or its not Bicarb. Bicarbonate is an alkali (bitter tasting), a substance as you may recall from high school, when mixed with an acid (sour tasting) results in salt and water. So what are the cooking uses of Bicarbonate of Soda?

When you need to make self-raising flour out of regular flour…
Self-raising flour is flour with Baking Powder in it. Baking Powder is Bicarbonate mixed with Tartaric Acid. Both are in powder form and so they don’t react with one another until the flour gets wet. When that happens, the acid and alkali react as described above and the resulting bubbles of carbon dioxide create the raising effect. To make self-raising flour, simply add 1 flat teaspoon of Bicarbonate for every cup of flour. After mixing the batter, you will also need to add lemon juice (I presume you don’t have any cream of tartar lying around at home) to trigger the reaction which infuses your batter with air. From my experiments, it takes 3 tablespoons of lemon juice to fully neutralize 1 flat teaspoon of Bicarbonate of Soda. Don’t worry, there won’t be a sour taste.

When food is too sour…
Firstly, by virtue of its reaction with acid substances, it can transform something sour into something salty. This is a simple example of what is nowadays called molecular gastronomy. Put too much vinegar into your dressing? Bicarbonate to the rescue. By the same token, when added to canned tomato soup, you get essence of tomato without the sour of tomato. This is a technique used in my Bouillabaisse Soup recipe.

When meat is too tough… Beef Strogonoff
Secondly, Bicarbonate of Soda is a very powerful meat tenderizer, a flat teaspoonful of the powder can tenderize half a pound of meat. Bicarbonate (usually mixed with oil and corn flour to give a smooth texture) is commonly used in Chinese restaurants to marinate pieces or slices of chicken, pork and beef. I sometimes use it when I make Beef Stroganoff, if I don’t have a really good cut of marbled meat. Although the Chinese also marinate entire steaks this way, I do not suggest that you do the same. Be aware, Bicarbonate is quite powerful and even a little bit will leave a bitter aftertaste. This however is not much of a problem as the Bicarbonate can be transformed into salt by adding vinegar to the meat after the tenderizing(1 -2 hours). The best way is to stir in the vinegar a bit at a time using the appearance of bubbles as a guide to the amount of neutralization activity going on.

When you want to make honeycomb…
Bicarbonate of Soda is the secret to making honeycomb, those scrumptious crispy honey bits you sprinkle over desserts like cream chiffon cake. It’s the active ingredient that causes the melted caramelized sugar to foam up before solidifying into honeycomb. One day I’ll get round to posting the recipe.

To put the crackle in crackling…crackling-1000
One less known use of Bicarbonate of Soda’s tenderizing properties is in the making of uber crispy pork skin. Cracking that is made using Bicarbonate of Soda will not get tough once it cools. Recipes for a host of crispy crackling dishes from German roasted pork knuckles, to Cantonese roasted whole pork belly, to just plain baked pork rind snacks, all rely on the secret of Bicarbonate. You have to use a lot more of it for a much longer time for skin, since skin is much tougher and more impervious than meat. The normal technique is to score the skin, then coat it with a layer of Bicarbonate of Soda. The meat is then left in the fridge for a day or two while the connective tissue between layers of the skin is broken down, allowing the skin to eventually fluff up beautifully. You would then scrape the Bicarbonate off and paint vinegar on the skin till the bubbling stops and all the remaining Bicarbonate is neutralized. As with before, you end up with salt, so the skin is automatically salted. With some steaming followed by roasting, you’ll end up with uber crispy cracking.

To make shrimp and prawns plump and fresh…
Compared to regular meat, crustacean meat reacts differently to Bicarbonate of Soda. When prawns are left to soak in an alkaline solution (i.e. 1t Bicarbonate + 1 cup water) for about half an hour, instead of being tenderized the prawn meat will become plump and crisp to the bite(when cooked). You’ll know when to stop the soaking as the meat will appear translucent. Also there is no need to neutralize the Bicarbonate with vinegar or lemon juice, you merely rinse the prawns thoroughly by leaving them under cold running tap water for a while. This is a well-Noodleskept secret of Chinese cooking and why shrimp meat tastes so much better in Chinese restaurants.

When you want Ramen but all you have is spaghetti …
The special ingredient in ramen noodles is kansui, which is an alkaline water. Coincidently Bicarbonate of Soda plus water is also alkaline. If you are interested, I just happen to have the procedure spelled out right here.


Posted by on October 12, 2009 in Ingredients


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8 responses to “What is Bicarbonate of Soda?

  1. Valerie Teo

    July 8, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Hi thank you for posting about Bicarbonate of Soda. Can you explain more about Cantonese roast pork using bicarbonate of soda together with vinegar. You said that the pork skin would pluff up when bicarbonate of soda is added but why or what is the function of vinegar used for roasting. Your explanation will enlighten many curious readers. Thank you! Blessings.

    • kobayash1

      July 9, 2013 at 2:24 am

      The bicarbonate weakens the connective tissue of the hide so the skin is free to puff up more easily. To be concise, it won’t puff up until you roast it. But once it does, it will be more crispy than usual. The vinegar is meant to react with the bicarbonate to form salt. You only do this after the bicarbonate has done its work. If you skip the vinegar, the bitter taste of the bicarbonate will stay on the pork.

      • kobayash1

        December 30, 2013 at 12:14 pm

        a bit late, but I finally got the rough details on cantonese roast pork from my sister.

        1. Salt the slab of pork belly.
        2. Score and and then powder skin with sodium bicarbonate. Keep in the fridge for 4 days.
        3. Paint on vinegar 4x at 10 minute intervals to neutralise.
        4. Steam for 20 minutes.
        5. Roast at 180C for 30 min and then 220C for 20 min to crisp up.

  2. Jun Cruz

    February 3, 2014 at 11:47 am

    Could you please inform me if after the crackling procedure, is it possible to marinate the pork meat with its skin and deep fry it instead of steaming and roasting it. Will there stil be an uber skin crispiness and a more tender meat. By the way besides coating the skin with bicarbonate of soda, will it do good to sprinkle the meat too with baking soda to tenderize it?

    • kobayash1

      February 6, 2014 at 7:19 pm

      Tenderizing meat with bicarb involves marinating the meat in small pieces (think stroganoff) so I would say the answer to your second question is generally no if you are talking about a large chunk of meat.

      I don’t have any experience with deep frying any pork larger than a pork rib so I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer you first question. I have seen something similar done with German-style whole pork knuckles, but I think those have to be steamed first as well or the skin gets tough really easily.

  3. Cameron Meyers

    November 15, 2015 at 3:10 am

    Not only is bicarb a tenderizer but also a preservative, I use three water/one bicarb and even after several weeks it’s tasty and super tender

  4. Trevor Gill

    November 17, 2016 at 12:23 am

    Surely if you want to convert the bicarbonate into salt you need to neutralise it with hydrochloric acid. Perhaps nothing t an ideal kitchen ingredient. With vinegar you will be left with sodium acetate.

    • kobayash1

      November 17, 2016 at 1:16 am

      That is correct. It won’t turn into table salt (sodium chloride), but some other salt. The idea is to get rid of the bitter taste of the Baking Soda after it does its job.

      In case anyone is wondering about the resulting ‘salt’. Sodium acetate (E262) is sometimes used as a seasoning, like in potato chips, so its not that uncommon. If you use lemon juice instead of vinegar you end up with sodium citrate (E331) another approved food additive.


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